Communicating

Terms defined: Coordinated Universal Time, discoverability, doc comment, docstring, issue tracker, label (an issue), mail filter, milestone, reproducible example (reprex), static site generator, technical debt.

Knowing how to steer and change gears isn't all there is to driving—you need to know how to signal when you're turning or changing lanes. Similarly, knowing how to commit to Git and do a code review are necessary but not sufficient for working with other programmers. This chapter therefore looks at how to communicate with your teammates.

To Do

You probably have a to-do list somewhere. It might be scribbled in a calendar or lab notebook, kept in a text file on your laptop, or in your head; wherever and however you maintain it, it lists the things you're supposed to do, when they're due, and (possibly) how urgent they are.

At its simplest, an issue tracker is a shared to-do list. Issue tracking systems are also called ticketing systems and bug trackers because most software projects use them to keep track of the bugs that developers and users find. These days, issue trackers are almost invariably web-based. To create a new issue, you enter a title and a short description; the system then assigns it a unique serial number. You can usually also specify:

If version control keeps track of where your project has been, your issue tracking system keeps track of where you're going. After version control, it is the most important part of a team project; without it, you and your teammates will have to constantly ask each other "What are you working on?", "What am I supposed to be working on?", and "Who was supposed to do that?" Once you start using one it's easy (or at least easier) to find out what the project's status is: just look at the open issues and at those that have been closed recently. You can use this to create agendas for your status meetings, and to remind yourself what you were doing three months ago when the time comes to write your final report.

Of course, a issue tracker is only as useful as what you put into it. If you're describing a bug in a large application, you should include enough information to allow someone to reproduce the problem. This is why industrial-strength systems like Jira can have a couple of dozen fields for each issue, including:

This is a lot more information than student projects require. In addition, students are almost always working on several courses at once, and it's common for students to have to put their team project aside for a few days to work on assignments for other courses. For these reasons, I've found that most student teams won't actually use anything more sophisticated than a web-base to-do list unless they're forced to by the grading scheme. In that case, most come away with the impression that issues are something you only use when you have to.

So what does a good issue look like? Bettenburg2008 found that the information users supply when they file a bug report tends not to be that which the relevant developers need the most, and most importantly, it differs in fairly predictable ways and for understandable reasons. Here's one I filed for the duplicate file finder reviewed in :

id: 47                                                      # 01
date: 2021-02-19T09:30:20+0500                              # 02
title: Binary files are read as text files                  # 03
type: bug                                                   # 04
severity: low                                               # 05
labels: utilities                                           # 06
                                                            # 07
The `dup.py` utility opens all files using `'r'` (for       # 08
text) instead of `'rb'` (for binary), so any carriage       # 09
return/newline pairs are converted to newlines only before  # 10
the hash is calculated. This doesn't break the matching,    # 11
since it is done consistently, but probably slows the       # 12
program down a little.                                      # 13

The ID on the first line is assigned by the issue tracker, an often serves as a shorthand name for the issue in conversation. ("Hey, is anyone working on number fifty-five yet?") The date is in UTC so that it is unambiguous: while your team may all be in one place, it's increasingly likely that you are scattered across several time zones.

The title on line 3 is probably the most important part of the issue. Projects will accumulate hundreds of issues over time; a good subject line makes it much easier to find the ones you need. The type, severity, and labels fields also improve discoverability; while type and severity could be labels, having them in fields of their own makes it easier to sort and filter issues.

Finally, the description briefly summarizes the problem. If the author hadn't already identified the cause, it should include a reproducible example (also called a reprex). This helps the person understand what the issue is much more than, "The program crashes when I open strange files," but experience shows that if people are required to come up with a reprex when filing an issue, they will often solve their own problem along the way. We'll talk more about the value of minimal reproducible examples in .

When to start saying "no"

As we will see in , one purpose of a schedule is to tell you when to start cutting corners. Similarly, one of the main reasons to keep issues in one place is to help you prioritize work when time starts to run short.

Labeling Issues

The bigger a project gets, the harder it is to find things. Issue trackers therefore let project members add labels to issues to make things easier to search and organize. Labels are also often called tags; whatever term is used, each one is just a descriptive word or two.

GitHub allows project owners to define any labels they want. A small project should always use some variation on these three:

Bug
Something should work but doesn't.
Enhancement
Something that someone wants added to the software.
Task
something needs to be done, but won't show up in code (e.g., organizing the next team meeting).

Projects also often use:

Question
where is something or how is something supposed to work? As noted above, issues with this label can often be recycled as documentation.
Discussion or Proposal
something the team needs to make a decision about or a concrete proposal to resolve such a discussion. All issues can have discussion: this category is for issues that start that way. (Issues that are initially questions are often relabeled as discussions or proposals after some back and forth.)

The labels listed above identify the kind of work an issue describes. A separate set of labels can be used to indicate the state of an issue:

Urgent
Work needs to be done right away. (This label is typically reserved for security fixes).
Current
This issue is included in the current round of work.
Next
This issue is (probably) going to be included in the next round.
Eventually
Someone has looked at the issue and believes it needs to be tackled, but there's no immediate plan to do it.
Won't Fix
Someone has decided that the issue isn't going to be addressed, either because it's out of scope or because it's not actually a bug. Once an issue has been marked this way, it is usually then closed. When this happens, send the issue's creator a note explaining why the issue won't be addressed and encourage them to continue working with the project.
Duplicate
This issue is a duplicate of one that's already in the system. Issues marked this way are usually also then closed; this is another opportunity to encourage people to stay involved.

Some projects use labels corresponding to upcoming assignments instead of Current, Next, and Eventually. This approach works well in the short term, but becomes unwieldy as labels with names like exercise-14 pile up. Instead, a project team will usually create a milestone, which is a set of issues and pull requests in a single project repository. GitHub milestones can have a due date and display aggregate progress toward completion, so the team can easily see when work is due and how much is left to be done.

Other Ways to Communicate

Issues are the best way to keep track of where you are, but there are lots of other ways the team can and should communicate. These can be synchronous, like chat and video calls, or asynchronous, like issues and email. The former are better for quick back-and-forth and for maintaining social connections, but they can also be a constant stream of interruptions, which lowers productivity (). Synchronous tools also tend to bias communication in favor of people who are more self-confident, more fluent in the language, or have better network connections, and finding things afterward in archives of stream-of-consciousness exchanges is harder than finding things in asynchronous media.

But who am I kidding? You're going to use instant messaging no matter what I say. If more than two people are in the conversation, follow the same rules you would for a short meeting: post a summary of any decisions you made where everyone can see it.

If you prefer fewer interruptions and longer periods of thought, you can always go back to email, which has been used to run projects since the 1970s. It brings content directly to people while allowing everyone to deal with issues when it's convenient for them, and supports long-running conversations. Email really comes into its own, though, when messages are routed through a central mailing list, so that people don't have to remember to CC the other five people on their team, and a shared archive can be created for later searching. The second point is as important as the first: if you can't go back and find out what was said a month ago—or, just as importantly, if someone else can't do that—you might as well not have said it.

Filters are your friend

Every email client allows you to set up filters that automatically flag messages matching certain patterns or file them in particular mailboxes. I have fourteen of these set up right now to organize messages belonging to particular projects; it only took a couple of minutes, and it means that when I check mail in the morning or after lunch, everything is set up for me to focus on one topic at a time.

Software portals provide many other ways to communicate, which project members use in a wide variety of ways Treude2011. Wikis seem like a good way to keep notes, create documentation, and so on. Their main strength is the fact that content is automatically and immediately visible on the web. These days, you will probably get more mileage out of a bunch of Markdown pages under version control—you have to set up a repository anyway, and version control systems are much better at reconciling conflicts between concurrent authors than wikis.

Blogs, on the other hand, have proven more useful. One kind of project blog consists of articles written by the team's members as a journal of their progress. This is most useful for people who are watching the project from the outside, like instructors.

The second kind of blog is one created automatically by tools. In many project management systems, every project has a blog. Every time someone checks code into version control, creates or closes an issue, or sends email, an entry is added to that blog. This allows the project's members to see changes scroll by in their usual blog reader, which is a handy way to keep track of what their teammates are doing.

If you are going to create a blog, use a static site generator to format and publish content consistently. On GitHub, for example, you can create a site with GitHub Pages using a tool called Jekyll; lots of different themes are available, and there are many good tutorials online.

Comments as communication

People don't usually think of comments as a form of communication like email or instant messaging, but if they are used properly, the only significant difference is that the comments are right there in the code where the recipients can't miss them rather than in an archive somewhere that they'll have to go and search. If you choose names for functions and variables carefully, the code itself will explain what it's doing when someone reads it aloud; the comments should therefore explain why, just as you would in an email. For example, this is not a useful comment:

x = x[1:] # take all but first element of list

This, on the other hand, tells the next person why we're doing it:

threads = threads[1:] # We are already running the first thread, so save the others.

Reporting Up

As well as reporting progress to your teammates, you may have to report it regularly to your instructor, who is effectively your manager. Julia Evans has described eight things your manager might not know, all of which apply to student teams:

  1. What's slowing the team down.

  2. Exactly what individual people on the team are working on.

  3. Where the technical debt is.

  4. How to help you get better at your job.

  5. What your goals are.

  6. What issues they should be escalating.

  7. What extra work you're doing.

  8. How compensation/promotions work at the company. (For students, this one translates to, "How grading actually works.")

Jacob Kaplan-Moss has a similar guide to giving a status update to executives, and Ask a Manager is full of good advice and discussion as well. If you follow those guidelines, you get briefs like this:

Project X is running smoothly. We're making steady progress: we've delivered a bit over half of the features on our roadmap, and we're on track to launch publicly in May.

I want to particularly highlight J's design work; every time we share a new demo with our user research group they rave over how much they love the design.

We do have some cost risk: right now, the code's pretty inefficient and would require us to increase our AWS spend by 25% when we put this into production. We either need to decide that cost is acceptable, or add some extra time to the schedule for performance optimization. I need some guidance from this team on that point: can you folks let me know if that cost seems OK or not?

If you learn how to summarize your status like this, you will be a very popular team member.

Documentation

An old proverb says, "Trust, but verify." The equivalent in programming is, "Be clear, but document." No matter how well software is written, it always embodies decisions that aren't explicit in the final code or accommodates complications that aren't going to be obvious to the next reader. Putting it another way, the best function names in the world aren't going to answer the questions "Why does the software do this?" and "Why doesn't it do this in a simpler way?"

In most cases, embedded documentation in the form of a short docstring or doc comment to remind ourselves of each function's purpose is probably as much documentation as we need. (In fact, it's probably better than what most people do.) That one- or two-liner should begin with an active verb and describe either how inputs are turned into outputs, or what side effects the function has; as we discuss below, if we need to describe both, we should probably rewrite our function.

An active verb is something like "extract", "normalize", or "plot". Some examples of good one-line docstrings include:

You can tell our one-liners are useful if you can read them aloud in the order the functions are called in place of the function's name and parameters.

Once you start writing code for other people (or your future self) your documentation should include:

The word "public" in the first rule is important. You don't have to write full documentation for helper functions that are only used inside your package and aren't meant to be called by users, but these should still have at least a comment explaining their purpose.

As explains, we can divide people in any domain into novices, competent practitioners, and experts. Each of these three groups needs a different kind of documentation:

The first thing to decide when writing documentation is therefore to decide which of these needs we are trying to meet. Tutorials like this book should be long-form prose that contain code samples and diagrams. They should show people things they actually want to do rather than printing the numbers from 1 to 10, and should include regular check-ins so that people can tell if they're making progress.

Tutorials help novices build a mental model, but competent practitioners and experts will be frustrated by their slow pace and low information density. They will want single-point solutions to specific problems, like how to find cells in a spreadsheet that contain a certain string or how to configure the web server to load an access control module. They can make use of an alphabetical list of the functions in a library, but are much happier if they can search by keyword to find what they need; one of the signs that someone is no longer a novice is that they're able to compose useful queries and tell if the results are on the right track or not.

Creating an FAQ

As projects grow, documentation within functions alone may be insufficient for users to apply code to their own problems. One strategy to assist other people with understanding a project is with an FAQ. A good FAQ uses the terms and concepts that people bring to the software rather than the vocabulary of its authors; putting it another way, the questions should be things that people actually search for online, not the things the program's developers wish they would ask.

Creating and maintaining an FAQ is a lot of work, and unless the community is large and active, a lot of that effort may turn out to be wasted, because it's hard for the authors or maintainers of a piece of software to anticipate what newcomers will be mystified by. A better approach is to leverage sites like Stack Overflow, which is where most programmers are going to look for answers anyway.

The Stack Overflow guide to asking a good question has been refined over many years, and is a good guide for any project:

Write the most specific title we can.
"Why does division sometimes give a different result in Python 2.7 and Python 3.5?" is much better than, "Help! Math in Python!!"
Give context before giving sample code.
A few sentences to explain what we are trying to do and why it will help people determine if their question is a close match to ours or not.
Provide a minimal reprex.
Readers will have a much easier time figuring out if this question and its answers are for them if they can see and understand a few lines of code.
Tag, tag, tag.
Keywords make everything from scientific papers to left-handed cellos easier to find. They are even more effective if the system encourages people to re-use tags so that they don't proliferate Lin2020.
Use "I" and question words (how/what/when/where/why).
Writing this way forces us to think more clearly about what someone might actually be thinking when they need help.
Keep each item short.
Break everything down into single-page steps, with half of that page devoted to troubleshooting. This may feel trivializing to the person doing the writing, but is often as much as a person searching and reading can handle. It also helps writers realize just how much implicit knowledge they are assuming.
Allow for a chorus of explanations.
Do not be afraid of providing multiple explanations to a single question that suggest different approaches or are written for different prior levels of understanding. This is one of the things that has made Stack Overflow so successful: if users are different from one another, they are best served by a chorus of explanations Caulfield2016.